This is a Medinan surah, which means it comes from the latter half of the prophet’s ministry, after he had defeated Mecca and gained growing regional power. It begins by focusing on the power and omniscience of God, as shown through creation. The people are urged to believe God’s prophet Muhammad, and to give some of their money and possessions to God (or, more probably, the prophet). Giving is described as a “loan” to God, which will be repaid in the hereafter, in heaven.
The afterlife is seen as more important than this life, which “is just a game, a diversion, an attraction, a cause of boasting among you, of rivalry in wealth and children…it is only an illusory game.” This privileging of the afterlife over this present life is interesting. On the one hand, it gives people hope that, despite present troubles, things will ultimately get better. On the other hand, what if there is no afterlife? If that’s the case, it would be a real tragedy if people disregarded this life. What if it’s the only one we get?
The surah affirms God’s providence, even over misfortune. People are encouraged to uphold justice. The title comes from this verse: “We (God) also sent iron, with its mighty strength and many uses for mankind.” Interestingly, iron can be used both to destroy (in war), and to build (in peace). I think this surah implies both uses.
Finally, the surah affirms the message of previous prophets (Noah, Abraham, and Jesus), even if their followers got the message wrong. For example, this passage condemns Christian monasticism, which was widespread in Muhammad’s day): “monasticism was something they (Christians) invented—We (God) did not ordain it for them.” Perhaps this is why there is not (to my knowledge) a monastic tradition in Islam. The surah ends with a reference to “The People of the Book” (i.e. Jews), and says that they have no special claim on God’s bounty—it extends to everyone. The apostle Paul, a Jewish follower of Jesus, made a similar point: “He gives it to whoever He will. God’s grace is truly immense.” These criticisms of Christians and Jews probably have their origin with real conflicts between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the prophet’s time—conflicts which (unfortunately) continue to our own times.
|This is a piece of iron ore.|